Blog: Happy Bengali New Year, 1419

The majority of people I know will know about a few New Year celebrations.  There’s THE New Year (you know, the one where you end up somewhere in London looking at fireworks and travel “free” on the underground but it’s not really because you have a monthly travelcard); there’s the Chinese New Year (this is the year of the Dragon) and, possibly, the Islamic calendar, generally owing to Ramadan (this is 1433 according to the Islamic calendar).

Today, 14 April, marks the start of the Bengali New Year, 1419.  It is generally celebrated by Bengali speaking people across the world, predominantly in Bangladesh and India (specifically in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura).  Of course, Bengalis abroad will celebrate too – I’ve been to many a “Boishakhi Mela” (“Boishakh” being the month and “Mela” meaning Fair) in London in my time! In fact, the “Pohela Boishakh” (Pohela mean first) mela in London is believed to be the largest Asian festival in Europe and the largest Bengali festival outside of Bangladesh and West Bengal.

So where did the calendar come from and why? The calendar itself is based on a combination of the Hindu solar calendar and Islamic Hijri calendar.  There are two generally accepted hypotheses surrounding its history.

The first is that the calendar started with the year 1 during the reign of King Shoshangko in ancient Bengal, who ruled approximately between 590 and 625 CE.

The other is that the Mughal Emperor Akbar (yes…my namesake) created the Bengali calendar for tax collection purposes.  Land and agricultural taxes were collected according to the Islamic Hijri calendar which, of course, is a lunar calendar.  This didn’t work so well for the agricultural year.  Akbar’s astronomer, Fatehullah Shirazi, started work on a new calendar based on the Islamic Hijri and Hindu solar calendar.  It is believed that instead of starting at 1, Akbar jump-started the calendar with the (then) Hijri year.

The Boishakhi Mela this year will be taking place in Tower Hamlets in May, so get yourselves out there if you can.

In the meantime, Shubho Noboborosho (Happy New Year) to all!


Article: Bangladesh: 40 years on

As with the previous post, this was posted on The Vibe the day after the 40th anniversary of Victory Day.  But, unlike The Times piece, looks at the issue of Bangladeshi identity as I saw it.  This proved to be a contentious piece which, frankly, I was pleased about.

The original article can be found by clicking here.

16 December 2011 is a very important day for my family.  Not only does it mark 23 years since my grandfather’s death but also 40 years since “Victory Day” for the country that came to be known as Bangladesh.  It marks the day Pakistani Armed Forces surrendered to the Allied Forces of East Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini and Indian forces.  With a patriotic Bangladeshi mother and a similarly patriotic Pakistani father, I have witnessed the most fascinating dynamics around this time of year throughout my life.

August 14, 1947 saw the controversial creation of Pakistan from the Muslim-majority eastern and north-western regions of British India – something Gandhi vehemently opposed but eventually acquiesced – with East Bengal (and later East Pakistan) some 1,300 miles away forming part of the new Pakistan.  Problems were apparent early on with most government administration taking place in the West despite the East being home to over half the Pakistani population.  Emerging calls for greater integration of East Pakistanis in government and military affairs through the official recognition of Bangla as a state language were thwarted.

Urdu was viewed the embodiment of a Muslim nation being based on Arabic script – Bangla was based on the Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism. On 7 December 1947 a key resolution passed that Urdu be the sole language in all media and education in all of Pakistan.  This was a seen as a mechanism to discount the overwhelming majority of Bangla-speaking East Pakistanis from claiming prominent roles in public life.  Protests, not too dissimilar from what we have seen this year in the Middle East, began the very next day.

Years of political wrangling and civil unrest eventually lead to Bangla being recognised as an official state language of Pakistan in 1956.  But ill-feeling remained and East Pakistanis still found themselves disproportionately under-represented in Pakistani government and public life.  In 1966, the Six Point Movement of Bengali nationalism called for the creation of Bangladesh that would lead to the War of Liberation in 1971.

Rising cultural tensions would see the brutal launch of Operation Searchlight by the Pakistani military, attempting to diffuse calls for Bangladeshi independence, with targeted operations against intelligentsia, military and civilian populations.   A senior US official described the operation in Time Magazine at the time as “the most incredible, calculated thing since the Nazis in Poland”.

The brutality and human cost and personal stories were harrowing – some have been captured by a BBC Asian Network report today.  Some 10 million people fled East Pakistan to India and 3 million people were reported to have died (though the exact figure is now being disputed).  My uncle, a Chief Superintendent of Police, was taken away from his family of wife and four young children and was never seen again.  His wallet, shawl and walking stick are on display in the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka.

On 14 December, the Day of the Martyred Intellectuals, my mother narrowly escaped her death after my grandfather was tipped off by the Indian General J. S. Aurora to leave the house.  Women, like Ferdousi Priobhashini, were regularly raped en masse and large scale killings were the norm.  The scale of atrocities moved Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist based in Dhaka, to flee to London and expose the atrocities in the Sunday Times, generating international attention.

Henry Kissinger, the then US National Security Adviser, famously said Bangladesh “is and always will be a basket case”, offering US support to West Pakistani forces in the war effort, at one point removing his own Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, for criticising the failure of the US government for “failing to denounce the suppression of democracy” – as highlighted by none other than Christopher Hitchens.  Independence was a bitter-sweet experience in my family – we lost many people but revelled in our newfound freedom; my great uncle’s signature still adorns the 1 Taka note to this day.

Forty years on, Bangladesh has been marred by political controversy, corruption, natural disasters and large swathes of poverty.  But one of the great tragedies of modern-day Bangladesh is the demise of the language amongst a sizeable and influential section of its population.

I was raised in Britain to read, write and speak Bangla fluently and can speak Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi fluently (dancing Bollywood aided this process).  But I know an increasingly sizeable number of Bangladesh-born Bangladeshis who are simply unable to read or write Bangla – their “English-medium” schools with distinctly American cultures have seen to that.  Their spoken Bangla makes Brett Lee’s Hindi seem native.  Sadly, it even seems to be viewed as a great source of pride for their families.

A burgeoning class is emerging that is being educated abroad at institutions like Oxbridge and Harvard and call South Kensington, Hampstead and Upper Manhattan home.  Increased trade with the UK and US, particularly garments, which enjoy duty free access under the EU EBA (Everything But Arms) Agreement, accounts for 80% of Bangladeshi trade with the UK, has considerably improved the wealth in this section of the population.  It is a source of great pride for me that Bangladeshis are making their mark abroad and generating wealth but it saddens me that this is at the cost of their sense and appreciation of their identity – the very thing that makes them so different from everyone else.

As a non-religious Brit with Muslim parents from Bangladesh and Pakistan, it can sometimes be difficult to have a clear sense of identity.  Siding with any one part requires an apology for another.  But I envy those who can call upon a single identity, especially one with as rich and recent a history as a Bangladeshi.

Perhaps Bangladeshi cricket isn’t a source of pride.  Perhaps the widespread corruption and poverty isn’t either.  But you are and will forever be a Bangladeshi.  The political classes in Bangladesh have much to answer for and tend to find it difficult to retain or attract the best Bangladeshi talent back to improve the country – indeed, Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus was driven out of the country as he attempted to leverage political capital following recognition of his work.

But closer to home, the perverse cultural affliction of this new class of Bangladeshi to be “Everything But Bangladeshi” is a source of great disappointment to me and many others.  They seem to have embraced everything from alcohol to promiscuity (stories from some of the elite schools in Bangladesh will put today’s alarm at underage sex in the UK in some perspective).  Bangladeshi-run restaurants in the UK will sell alcohol – Pakistani-run restaurants simply will not.

My uncle was just one of many that died just for standing up for what they believed in – today’s Syrians and Bahrainis will sympathise.  That my generation of native and foreign-born Bangladeshis distance themselves from their country and, ultimately, the sacrifices their ancestors made is sad.  I am just as proud of my Bangladeshi roots as I am of my Pakistani ones.  They should be too.